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Bound to Tease


All tied up in the world of Alain Robbe-Grillet

Oh, the life of a French intellectual. Subverting reality in novels and essays, thinking les grandes pensées and teaching writing, all while publicly flaunting one’s kinks. Alain Robbe-Grillet—three of whose films will be spotlighted in a mini-festival at Hallwalls from Sept. 17th to Oct. 16th—was such an individual. He was an influential novelist turned filmmaker whose movies are artful and entertaining jigsaw puzzles that just happen to have a sizable dose of bondage imagery.

This last aspect is the one that has probably lured in most American viewers to his films. But be warned: his films contain some very erotic images, but they are not erotica per se. As the driving force behind the nouveau roman movement in French fiction, Robbe-Grillet crafted dreamlike tales in which a confused hero or heroine moves through an environment ruled by shifting surfaces. This was best illustrated in his most famous work, the screenplay for Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad (1961). In that film, his characters relive key moments over and over again from different angles and with different outcomes. The three films playing at Hallwalls show different aspects of his dream landscapes—and the aforementioned tied-up ladies.

If made by anyone else, including his contemporaries in the French New Wave, L’Immortelle (1963), Robbe-Grillet’s debut feature as a writer-director, would’ve been a film noir—a classic tale of a man (director-turned-actor Jacques Doniol-Valcroze) who discovers his ideal woman (Francoise Brion) in an unfamiliar city (Istanbul in this case) and then loses her. He returns to all the places he visited with her, but no one will admit to having seen her.

Robbe-Grillet clearly enjoyed playing with the elements of familiar genres and veering sharply away from the expected pay-offs. So here viewers can speculate that the woman never existed, that she has died, or that our confused hero has been dreaming all along. We are supplied with a definitive ending, but is it the truth or just fantasy? The answer, of course, is that all of the above are equally valid answers to the mystery.

Although he was first and foremost “a man of letters,” Robbe-Grillet focused his attention as a filmmaker primarily on his visuals. L’Immortelle contains many haunting images that stick with you long after the film is over. At this early point in his filmmaking career, he kept his kinky impulses in check, instead emphasizing a repressed sexuality that surfaces in sequences involving a belly dancer and recurring images of Brion clad in lingerie and starring challengingly at the camera.

Robbe-Grillet’s next film, Trans-Europ Express (1965), is one of his most accessible and entertaining works, a thriller that both comments on and satirizes itself. It also was the first time he “came out of the closet” on film, revealing his fixation with bondage.

Jean-Louis Trintignant (Amour, The Conformist) stars as a man who is distracted from his drug-smuggling assignment in Belgium by a beautiful woman (Marie-France Pisier, Cousin Cousine). While that plotline gathers steam, we also watch as a filmmaker, played by Robbe-Grillet, and two associates discuss the making of the film we are watching as they travel on a train—the same train boarded by Trintignant at one point in the film.

The masterstroke here is the inclusion of a “script girl” played by Robbe-Grillet’s wife Catherine. She points out when the plot is becoming too outlandish or when a continuity error occurs. This is particularly amusing, as her husband’s films revolved around intentional continuity errors. The presence of this character makes Trans-Europ Express a thoroughly self-aware work that subtly spoofs the tenets of the nouveau roman.

This honesty on the filmmaker’s part extends also to his interest in—scratch that, obsession with—bondage. The storyline is disrupted not only by the comments of the filmmaking team but also by stray interludes in which Trintignant stares at Pisier tied to a bed, and a visit to a nightclub where he is mesmerized by a chained woman performing a “slave girl” dance routine.

21st-century viewers might readily condemn Robbe-Grillet’s bondage fixation as sexist, although the kinky imagery he introduced in Trans-Europ and returned to often as the years went by is rather quaintly picturesque and “couples-friendly.” It should also be noted that his wife shared his interest, as she was an erotic novelist of some renown who specialized in bondage tales (her best known, written under the pen name “Jean de Berg,” was The Image, later turned into a film by softcore master Radley Metzger).

Even though it was made in 1970, Eden and After is easily labelled the most “Sixties” of the bunch. Robbe-Grillet’s first color feature and his only statement on the “youth culture” of the time, it is appropriately psychedelic and exceedingly cryptic.

“Eden” in this case is a café located near a college that looks more like an office than an eatery. The students who gather there perform Russian roulette and rape games, until a mysterious Dutchman (Pierre Zimmer) arrives and introduces them to an odd substance called “fear powder.”

A young woman (Catherine Jourdan, Girl on a Motorcycle) takes the powder and hallucinates a journey to Africa, where her friends are all searching for a valuable painting. The painting is what Hitchcock called a “MacGuffin”—a plot element that appears to be the catalyst for the action in a film or novel, but is in fact just a distraction.

Robbe-Grillet clearly had little interest in political matters, so his “youth culture” picture winds up being another fragmented mystery that spends much time on the sexual activities of the students. The most striking sexual images here are a series of tableaux vivantes that punctuate the scenes set in Africa—the coeds are bound in some fashion, but here, as in his later films, Robbe-Grillet makes his kinky tableaus resemble Christian paintings and frescos. (Eden remained a subject of some fascination for Robbe-Grillet, who took alternate takes of certain scenes and edited them together with outtakes to create a second film called N. Takes the Dice (1972).)

In the nearly four decades between Eden and his death in 2008, Robbe-Grillet became a writing teacher of some note at New York University, as he continued writing novels and made five more bondage-riddled dream-films. True to form, he created a major stir a year before his death when his unrepentantly pornographic final novel, a tale of incest and torture called A Sentimental Novel, was published in France (an English translation appeared earlier this year).

Robbe-Grillet’s films are not for the sort of multiplex-goer who prefers a movie to have a linear, logical storyline. His pictures are intended for open-minded viewers who are looking for something different (and aren’t offended by a dash of erotica in amongst the dreams).

For all the talk of the “complexity” of his films, they are actually very simple: they allow you to assemble the storyline and eventually solve the “mystery” yourself. If you do it well enough, maybe you too can someday be a French intellectual.

Ed Grant is a film historian who produces and hosts the weekly Manhattan cable show Media Funhouse and maintains the Media Funhouse blog:

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